I will start with the end, first.
For the first time in my life, I stood completely naked in the presence of about 25 people. And felt free. I was not conscious of myself in any manner. And neither were these 25 women, some of whom chose full disclosure, the others opting for partial instead.
I didn't mean to belong to the former category. I just forgot to bring with me on my first trip to a Turkish Hamam, a bathing suit or extra underwear to be used during the bath.
My attendant, came for me first, noting that the 15 minute sauna bath to prepare my skin for the actual Turkish bath had finished. She held my arm police officer style and walked me from the sauna to the marbled center of the hamam for all to see. I dare not look up, left or right.
Even though I was not naked yet, thanks to the thin Igbo patterned cloth that was provided by the Hamam , she could sense my heart beat getting faster and faster with dreaded anticipation for the moment that I would have to be disrobed. And so, she quickly put her other hand around my shoulder to comfort me.
I thought to myself, how can I explain to her, a woman who speaks not one word of English that maybe I shouldn't do this. I couldn't.
Still grasping for that one last straw, she, as we reached our designated area on the huge pentagon shaped marbled slab, pinched, in an effort to remove it, the shroud that was wrapped around my body, securely pinned between my armpits.
She pinched again.
I held my grip even more.
But this attendant, as most Turkish people are for that matter, was not one to indulge in non-sensical time wasting, and more importantly, a solid 100 pounds heavier and five inches taller than me, won the pinching battle.
Without thinking, I didn't give my standing naked self much time to be 'inspected' by the other women in the hamam. I hit the marble counter with the same frantic speed as if I were in Compton during a shoot out between the Bloods and the Crips. Is that even possible?
I lay on my stomach as the attendant began to soak my body with water and soap. As she began scrubbing my body with her mitt, I took the chance to look around and see if the other women, Muslim, shared any of my anxieties about being completely naked in front of strangers.
There was a good range of ages and sizes of women, from the 80 something year old grandma to the 16 year old teenager from which to gauge the cultural beliefs about nudity.
To be honest not one of these women looked the slightest bit perturbed, or even conscious of their nudity as they washed their own bodies or that of their companion's who were more likely than not sister, friend or cousin. They had the same at ease demeanour and composure as one would have when walking through a local supermarket.
And that was such a monumental surprise for me: Muslim women who are often identified as the most modest of all women in today's society were the most oblivious to their own as well as other women's nudity. There was not one nosey attempt to steal glances at each other's bodies or for that matter, any shy dismissal to ignore their shared nakedness either.
They simply just were.
The only reason why, as my attendant did try to explain to me with hand gestures that I got one mili-second of attention from the other women was because of my black skin. And furthermore, my locs. They weren't shrouded by a plastic cap. They had never seen locs up close and personal like that before.
My attendant scrubbed me down from the front to the back; top to bottom... and in between. Nothing was private and really couldn't be negotiated even if I wanted it to be. I wasn't violated by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, what I had come to realise by looking at the other attendants faces and the other women in the hamam was that they were not the slightest bit prudish or felt that they had any reason to be.
After my Turkish bath, she led me to another area where I would have my oil massage, an additional service not typically indicative of a traditional hamam experience, but for which I paid.
Once again placed on a table, she began the massage. Laying on my stomach I couldn't see, but I could tell that some of the women who I had just seen in the bath area were now standing around me watching as the attendant massaged my body with oil.
And even though I couldn't speak a word of Turkish, I knew what the tone of inquisitiveness sounded like.
A few minutes later, my hunch was confirmed when as my attendant was massaging my neck, I could feel two pairs of hands on my thighs and feet.
She screamed at them. They backed off, but remained uttering words, though not familiar to me at the time, I would later come to learn, were in fact complimentary.
They returned as she focused on my temples. This time they were touching the small of my back and my locs.
I had to turn over.
Seeing their faces they looked mesmerised and bespoilt that they had touched a black woman's body, skin and natural hair.
Now able to see each other face to face, they did not attempt to touch me again but remained present for the last 10 minutes of my massage which now focused on my shoulders, arms, breasts, stomach etc. Comforted by the fact that inside the hamam, cell phones or cameras were not allowed, I was ok with them taking mental notes of what this black skin, body and hair looked and felt like.
After the massage was over, I thanked my attendant the best that I could and she returned her gratitude and pleasure. She quickly disappeared leaving me alone... and naked. By then, my audience had gone too.
I just stood there not knowing what to do or where to go as cliques of women walked by me engrossed in their own conversations.
I felt invisible, but yet with the attention that I had just gotten during my massage still fresh in my mind, clearly visible.
I finally decided to return to the center of the hamam where women continued to be bathed by attendants, companions or themselves. Taking one last look around, my eyes finally fell on the ceiling. It was breathtakingly beautiful. A mosque- esqued shaped dome with tiny skylight holes that allowed for light to come streaming into the bath.
Standing naked in the middle of the hamam and in front of 25 strangers; the light warmly shone on me. I was immediately enveloped with a feeling of complete and total gratitude, peace and serenity- a feeling that was indicative of a profound life changing moment resulting in total self-acceptance and possession.